All of us have goals in life that we want to achieve.
These can be a variety of things from getting fit to financial success, perhaps winning a triathlon, or succeeding in a cooking competition. The list goes on. For a majority of us, the journey to achieve these things starts by setting a goal. You’ll often hear things like SMART goals, or one milestone at a time, however that’s not the way to look at it, or is it?
I did the same until I discovered the secret (yes, it’s a secret) to actual achievement.
Now to some that may sound a bit odd, but let me explain. I too set goals, I still do – every day, including today. Whether it was at the gym with a goal of bench pressing 130kg or finishing my next triathlon. See, the secret I uncovered is that in order to get things done, it’s not a matter of setting goals, and then bit by bit making progress towards that goal, because, let’s face it – honestly, how often have you actually achieved that specific goal versus failing at numerous others. New years resolutions anyone? I know I have.
It’s a matter of understanding your goal and the system that you should put in place to achieve that goal. Create that system, that habit, and make it a ritual. But do it correctly, otherwise this too will fail.
Now you may be like, Hermann, that seems simple and logical, and that is definitely no secret. I contest that.
While most of us may understand this concept, a majority of us do not utilize it.
Understand the difference
Your goal is the end result. Your system pertains to the automated steps you put in place to achieve that goal.
- You are a triathlete – Your goal is to finish the triathlon. The system pertains to your training schedule.
- You are an entrepreneur – Your goal is to have €1M in revenue. Your system pertains to the approach of your sales towards clients and your marketing process.
Two simple examples. I could dish out many more. However, I believe you understand where I am going with this.
In my guide “Engineer Habits” I touch on the tip of the topic of systems to achieve goals, and why I believe the focus should be on the system, not the goal. A few great reads on this come from James Clear, who started out doing a few things and then gradually began writing on the topic and now is considered a notorious expert on it. His book sales say so!
Now having mentioned the above two examples, the question that arises for us – what if you also focused on the system rather than the goal? What would happen? Give it some thought.
In other words, say your goal was to go on a vacation in 6 months and fly to some exotic place. Rather than counting the days towards the goal and seeing if it would be financially feasible, you worked on making it happen through the creation of a system that guaranteed the outcome of visiting a foreign country?
Or my earlier triathlon example (since I love triathlons) – rather than focusing on participation (or even win) of your next triathlon, you instead focused solely on your practice schedule every day? Forget the race.
Here an additional few reasons why I believe you need to focus on the system rather than the goal.
1. Goals Kill Motivation and Long-Term Progress
A majority of you may believe that having a goal is sufficient for motivation. That is not the case and I speak out of 1000’s of personal experiences in my own life. And I am sure if you reflected you too would have the same. A goal DOES NOT motivate, especially when it comes to the long run (at least in a very high majority of cases). Would you not agree when looking at your own life?
Take the example of a first-time marathon runner. Many people will want to run a marathon and begin training, working hard for months on end to achieve that goal, however, once they complete it that’s it. And I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that. Perhaps running a single marathon was on your bucket list or something you have always wanted to prove to yourself, however, the initial goal here was to run a marathon, now the goal is complete and the motivation to continue training or anything relevant is gone. In other words, when you focus on a specific goal, what pushes you to achieve it? That is why the system works better. Rather than focusing on finishing the marathon, focus on the training and the elements you enjoy. Then most likely, even after your marathon, certain elements from your system will remain for the long-term, avoiding the yo-yo effect.
Therefore in order to sustain the long-term process you must put a system in place that will move with you towards your end result. Regardless of how we are wired, you do not need immediate results.
A personal example here. I’ve been doing lots of pushups lately, and a few days ago as I was coming to a close on one of my last sets, I felt a slight, sharp pain in my back. I’ve had several muscle injuries on my back over the years, so I wanted to be careful. I knew I wasn’t injured or anything. This was just my body telling me to take a break.
Now goal-minded Hermann would have continued. I’ve done that in the past. In this instance, however, with my system based thinking I called it quits and hit the shower. See a goal-based mentality will tell you to complete the workout and achieve your goal. Say your goal is 100 push-ups every day. A system based mentality is not about that specific number, it relates more to the process of me actually doing my reps every day for the long run. I’ll eventually hit my rep numbers regardless of whether or not I decide to stop this one day, because long-term progress and consistency goes over reaching a specific goal “at all costs.” That is true in business as well.
Goals are short term. The system is long term. The process always wins.
2. Goals Affect Happiness
A lot of people really don’t understand this. I want to make sure you do and why I believe goals affect happiness.
When you set a goal you are basically saying “I am not good enough yet, however, once I reach that goal I will be.” This valedictorian address from 2019 is a good reflection on that.
This is the way most of us grow up, and we are taught to put aside happiness until we succeed in achieving our goals. Your essentially saying “Once I attain my goal, I know that I’ll be happy, that I’ll be successful.”
I WANT you to stop this thinking right now. I want you to commit to the process of attaining a goal versus the actual goal itself. I want you not to stress out on your goal. Rather than walking around thinking I need to lose weight, get my next promotion, or lift 130kg I want you to focus on keeping on track with your schedule. Your plan. Say, eating smaller healthier portions regularly, work diligently on your projects, and build rapport with your team, go to the gym 3 days a week for the next 6 months, respectively. Keep things simple, bring down the stress level and stick to the schedule, rather than always pondering about your uber fantastic life-changing goal. Trust me.
When you zoom in on the practice part, rather then the actual performance, it’ll go a long way in regards to happiness. Be present within the current moment and improve yourself while at it through the process you establish in your schedule.
3. You Are Not In Absolute Control
A mistake I often made in the past is believing I knew where my next goal would take me and everything that would happen along the way. Whenever we set a goal we begin establishing grounds on how we plan to get to that end result. We think of how fast we get to certain milestones, yet we do not calculate what could potentially happen along the way.
Be honest with yourself and think about this for a minute. I’m sure you do this. You set a goal and try predicting the future. You can’t.
In 2014 (if I recall correctly), two close friends and I began training for our next triathlon. I had my goal worked out, my schedule in place, and I knew what I needed to do. However, 2 weeks into training I tore a muscle in my thigh. I was out.
See when it comes to goal setting, don’t think you can control everything. Instead, build into your system a regular moment of feedback. In other words, when I go into training, I use my Garmin watch to track as much data as possible. I then take 10-15 minutes one day per week to look at all my data, look at my charts, my heart rates, etc and check if everything is according to plan. If not, I adjust my training schedule where needed. Taking the time to build in this feedback session gives me insight and tells me if I am doing things right. Innovating life.
The reason this is important is that a good system allows you to keep track of a variety of things in reaching your goals, without the constant pressure of you trying to make assumptions of what could happen along the way of you achieving your goal. That said, chuck out trying to see into the future, and actually, put a system into place that will help you by signaling when you need to adjust something to stay on track in reaching your goal.
Don’t get me wrong here. Goals are vital. Without them, we’d be useless meandering zombies. The key difference is that goals help you plan progress, while a good system will support you in making progress. You set a goal and you know where you are headed too. They may give you that push in the short-term, but an awesome system will make you the long-term winner. And to me, that is what matters most. Committing to the process.